Apr/May 2023  •   Fiction


by S. A. Renschler

A face in the public domain

A face in the public domain

You always thought you were the kind of guy women would appreciate in the end, but you never understood how far away the end was.

When the grade school kids played house, you were always somebody's grandfather, or worse, a great-uncle, invariably assigned that fate by the beautiful, bossy girl you wanted to be your wife. This was how things started for you, your grandniece telling you what a great great-uncle you were while she kissed the cheeks of some third-grade football hero.

You figured out too late that when girls said their mothers would like them to marry a boy like you, they didn't mean it as a compliment. High school was a lot of standing around the smoky basements of other rich kids' houses, watching guys more clever than you manipulate the nipples of girls whose sneezes made you hard. So you leaned into dark corners and folded your arms and got righteous about being sober, hoping this would make you a mystery to someone.

You were the one who ran out to the road at Cliff Casanova's party, your white Polo sweater a ghost of fashions past, your hair a slick mess of smelly chemicals. You cried out at the tangled front fender of your father's Beemer, starting to believe there was a conspiracy. You with your pastel shirts and wind-tunnel-tested hair. Were you really surprised when girls didn't look at you just because your lips were moving? Everyone thought you were gay, but not cool gay. Fundamentalist Christian gay. Around you girls were sucking the popsicles of boys not half as handsome. And so you took to feeling tragic like the Duke of Windsor, except it was never clear what you had abdicated, or for whom.

In college you made a mission of taking the fun out of frat boys' parties, and to your surprise you got laid anyway. Now there were girls who had started to think like their mothers, and suddenly you were doling out truth as though you'd invented it, finding your reflection in mirrors everywhere. This was your time, despite the occasional death threats from boys who wore their hats backwards, the muscles of the short ones so big they walked funny. They invited your girlfriends to parties with names like "Barnyard Animals," pulling them aside to whisper, "You don't belong with him," waking them to hiss, anonymous, through the phone, "Does he do you doggie style?" You believed there was a conspiracy. You persisted, righteous and stealthy, determined to find their blood at the scene of every accident they had ever caused long before there was such a thing as DNA evidence. You were always so ahead of your time. When you crashed their parties flanked by gays and lesbians, they grew enraged and disoriented but only continued to break things. You, a renegade in penny loafers and a blue blazer. You had always wanted to be a paradox.

Out of college and causes, you copied legal documents alleging illegal activities and waited for your considerable talents to be recognized. Doors opened, but never within earshot of you. The men you met had haircuts you didn't like. The women had boyfriends who were singing in bands or becoming bankers. They treated you like sex was a thing they couldn't imagine you having. They laughed and pinched your cheeks like you were some boy they babysat, telling you they'd always wanted a brother like you. You with your dry-cleaned oxfords and blow-dried hair. Were you really surprised they stared out cab windows while you talked? The most outrageous thing you'd ever done was bite your fingernails.

You walked among tall buildings when you should have been sleeping, watching their winking windows, kicking bottle caps under street lamps and waiting for something to happen. A man grabbed you once and shoved you against a parked car, but it didn't change your life as you hoped it would.

You turned profound, starting to believe you understood things about being human other humans didn't. Everyone you wanted to talk to was talking to someone else, and the people who found you only wanted directions. When a woman on the subway told you she had Jesus in her heart, you said, "I know what that's like because he's in my brain." You wanted to be unnerving for once in your life, but she only leaned closer, nodding so hard you thought her neck would snap.

"What's he tell you?" she said.

Some days after work you shared a pitcher of beer with a jolly copy girl named Shelli who said you were funny, her banker boyfriend always someplace like Paris or Milan. She was older than you and hadn't been to college, and you imagined her teaching you something about the underside of sweetness. You would take her round cheeks in your hands and lurch suddenly to kiss her, your teeth knocking like bones. You would press your lips to the dark warm space between her breasts, gasping her in as she pushed you away. She would laugh then, her scent lingering on your face like the leavings of a dream, your penis a bruised and throbbing limb. She would call you sweet and go, inviting you nowhere.

Sweet was a thing you no longer wanted to be, and so you lit your blue blazer aflame and tossed it in the toilet. You bought a wide-collared shirt, naked white people with blue Afros dancing across its polyester. You bought some shoes that were painful, but funky. You walked out while the phone rang, leaving your parents to talk to a recording of your voice you'd always suspected didn't sound like you. You started cussing like you knew what you were talking about and hobbled off to parts of town where the pizza men didn't deliver, the phrase "jive turkey" emanating from some dormant place deep in your head.

In a biker bar you drank beer and shot pool, the air around your ears thick with quiet, bearded faces flickering bright and then dim like the ghosts of silent pictures. Whispers drifted and voices fell low until you turned and said, loud as a sportscaster, "So how would you fellas like to have a go?"

A short time later you were running the rain-slick streets, the slap of footfalls fading behind you, hands reaching out of blankets at every corner as though they'd been expecting you. At the end of an alley, a warehouse rattled its windows and a bare-chested man with a rat on his shoulder let everyone in but you, including a pit bull called Hatchet. "You're not the genuine article," the shirtless man said, a meaty finger at your clavicle. "We can all see that." And you looked around quickly but saw no one else there, just the building thumping away like a frantic, throbbing heart.

At home you shaved your head, pressing the razor so hard, blood appeared in places, the radio ranting at you like a righteous relative. Upstairs you could hear the one-armed piano player pause and shift his corpulence to listen, but he didn't stop playing permanently as he should have.

Outside, the streets were shining and empty, and you ran the 20 blocks to Shelli's, raindrops stinging your face like reprimands, sirens crying distantly like the muted screams of your dreams. At her door you must have pressed a dozen buttons before a muffled male voice swore and asked you what you wanted. You contemplated this until he said, "Who are you?" Then you turned away.

In the bus station, bodies scattered before you like injured ants, each in its own irregular orbit, and a woman wrapped in torn bed sheets begged you for your shoes. "You don't want them," you said. "They're very painful." Then you leaned against a bulletproof window and said, "Get me away from this place," and as your ticket printed, the person on the other side of the glass asked if you were a skinhead.

A blind man handed you a miniature Bible and rattled a cup at you, and as the bus rolled on into darkness, you read about how the world would end and wondered where you'd be when it did. Next to you a young man with a pitted face pulled on his patchy beard, and you could feel his stare like heat against your head. "Are you a believer?" he said finally.

You looked at him then, and the closeness of his bleary eyes startled you.

Rain rapped suddenly against the window where your head rested, making you flinch. You leaned closer to him as he told you how people he'd loved had left him like a leper, alone and whistling strange tunes to himself in public places.

"At least they saw you," you told him. "If you had truly been invisible, they couldn't have run from you."

You with your self-serving tongue, your too-clever remarks. For once in your life you meant to be encouraging.

"What are you saying?" he said.

"I'm saying, choose leprosy," you said.

"I want to believe," he said. "Are you a believer? I was going to be a doctor," he said. "I was going to make hearts beat when they stopped and put broken bodies back together. I was going to save things," he said, veins like red roots running the balls of his eyes.

"Where are you going?" you said.

"I've been in jail," he said. "There were no women there."

"There are no women anywhere," you said. "I've looked. But don't worry. I can see you're the kind of guy women will appreciate in the end. Where are you going?"

"In the end?" he said. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Read this," you said, shaking the little book at him. "Maybe it will work for you."

"I was going to save things," he said.

"No, you weren't!" you said angrily. "Haven't you seen what's in here? You are not the one who will do the saving," you said, thrusting the little book at him.

"Are you a believer?" he said.

And you turned to the window to see the universe pass you by, all whirling blackness and dying stars. And you knew you would never answer, because you believed fervently that a question asked too many times should hang, hang forever.

You, that one-in-a-million colorless chameleon, that magic bag empty of tricks. You had always wanted to be a mystery to someone.